ksandness comments

Posted in: Why you shouldn’t learn Japanese See in context

Sigh, this is an all-too-common attitude among expats from English-speaking countries. English-speakers are the first to whine if an immigrant to their country doesn't speak English the minute he or she steps off the plane, and if a national or local government provides official forms or signage or information in any language other than English, it is "coddling those immigrants who refuse to learn English."

I've even seen websites that tout retirement overseas and assure the retirees that they can live in Mexico without speaking Spanish. (Any North American familiar with the English Only movement will see the irony here.)

I'll give you my experience. Granted, I came to Japan for the first time as a student of Japanese historical linguistics and eventually became a translator. My experience was different from many people's study abroad experience in that I was one of two native speakers of English in the entire university. Most of the other foreign students were from Asian countries, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, and our only common language was Japanese. I also lived in an apartment in an all-Japanese neighborhood and spoke English perhaps once or twice a week. I spent much of each weekday reading scholarly articles in Japanese. (I had already gone through Cornell University's FALCON intensive program and three years of graduate school before arriving in Japan.)

During this time, I knew an expat couple who had lived in Japan for many years and took the same approach as the author of this piece, that you just need a few phrases. Worse still, their children, who had come with them to Japan as infants or toddlers, and were teenagers by the time I met them, did not speak Japanese.

Aside from the fact that my language skills have been useful professionally, they have enriched my life immeasurably.

For one thing, I can talk to anyone, not just people who speak English. I've had interesting conversations with people from all walks of life and of all ages. It's hard to maintain stereotypes when you've had in-depth conversations with all kinds of people. If I need to ask fairly complicated questions of train station employees or bank tellers, I can. I can get information and make reservations over the phone, even if the person on the other end of the line doesn't speak English. Many times, I have seen panic on the faces of retail clerks or ticket sellers, only to see them relax when I address them in Japanese and explain what I need.

I am not illiterate in Japan. I can read signs, newspapers, magazines, even novels. If I have a layover in a country train station, I can pick up a newspaper and read it.

I can understand what's happening on TV. Granted, much of it is inane (but if you think that inane TV is uniquely Japanese, you haven't seen the inanities shown to the viewing public in your own country recently), but being able to understand what is happening on TV can be a useful skill. I was living in a gaijin house in the summer of 1985 when the big JAL crash that killed 495 people occurred. I was the only person in the house who could tell my housemates what was going on.

I'll never be mistaken for a Japanese person over the phone, and since I live in the States, I don't have many opportunities to speak Japanese. But I do read and watch movies, and when I visit Japan, my brain soon clicks into gear.

People who live in Japan and don't speak Japanese beyond a few phrases don't know what they're missing. Saying "You'll never be accepted no matter how long you live here, so why bother learning the language" may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. True, you'll never really be Japanese, but many of my fellow translators have proved that you can live a full adult life in Japan if you bother to learn the language to what is called "professional competence."

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